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Thursday, Dec. 23, 2004 11:13 pm

Fifth Street, December 1938

South Fifth Street in Springfield, 66 years ago

Photographer Herbert Georg captured a classic film noir image in early December 1938, with the neon of Springfield's many movie theaters reflecting on the rain-washed bricks and streetcar tracks of South Fifth Street.

Looking north from Jackson, we note a street full of sedans, but not a single person is in sight. Even the double-parked car in the foreground has no driver. James Cagney and Pat O'Brien are starring in Angels with Dirty Faces, which opened at the Roxy on Thanksgiving Day. The marquee reads, "Hope Springs from the Slums and so does Hate."

Up the street, at the Fox-Lincoln, Janet Gaynor and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. share top billing in The Young in Heart, a David Selznick-produced screwball comedy about a family of society con artists.

Busy Christmas shoppers are able find something for everyone on their list in downtown's many shops.

At Bridge Jewelry, Lady Bulova watches may be purchased for $29.75 -- just the thing for Mom. A down payment of as little as 50 cents at Montgomery Ward holds your toys until Dec. 20, and a red wagon will set Dad back $2.98. W.T. Grant offers an Orphan Annie range for little girls and a new Lone Ranger toy -- "Wind him up and he throws a lasso." Sending holiday greetings is easy: A variety of cards may be found at McDonald's Art and Book Store or at Robert R. Stevens' Card Shop. If the personalized touch appeals to you, the Camera Shop can make Christmas cards from your snapshots for only 10 cents apiece.

The Fifth Street Walgreens provides busy shoppers with a Saturday lunch special of hot ham, baked beans, toast, ice cream, and tea or coffee for only 30 cents or, for an afternoon treat, a 15-cent chocolate banana royal pecan sundae.

According to the gossipy "Scouting the Shops with Mary Jane" page in Friday's Illinois State Journal, Sweetheart aprons from Herndon's are "simply darling . . . their radiant colors challenge the rainbow itself." And be sure, Mary Jane says, to go to Myers Brothers for "chenille robes . . . velvety-soft in luscious pastels."

Roberts Brothers insists that "cold legs are old legs" that should be kept warm with Jockey long underwear. And if long underwear doesn't keep you warm enough, several companies will be more than happy to install gas heat so you can spend your coziest Christmas ever -- with no down payment.

The week that Georg snapped the photograph, the Illinois State Journal and MGM co-sponsored the Great Waltz Competition at the State Armory. Held as a benefit for Gov. Henry Horner's Christmas Basket Fund, the winners advanced to competition at Chicago's Aragon and Trianon ballrooms. A young man wishing to look his best that night could purchase a complete tuxedo outfit (including tux, shirt, tie, and even shoes and socks) from Myers Brothers for only $31.95 and pick up a corsage for his date at Winch's. The young lady might be wearing a velvet gown or -- Mary Jane's personal choice -- "one of those slinky dresses . . .

taffeta, draped at the shoulder and held with jeweled clips." More than 2,500 attended the competition, which was won by Miss Cappie Montgomery and William Jockey, both of Springfield. Ten days later, they lost to a Cook County couple in the Chicago competition.

Shopping was not the only thing on people's minds in December 1938. Front-page headlines described wildfires in the Los Angeles hills. The national debt had soared to $1.43 billion, double the 1937 figure. Pope Pius XI was gravely ill in Rome. Actress and director Leni Riefenstahl, snubbed by studios and stars alike for her links to Adolf Hitler, left Hollywood to return to Germany. Actor William Powell had just signed a contract to make three pictures a year for $200,000 per film.

Football fans had cheered as the Springfield Senators defeated the Decatur High School Reds, 39-0. Landscape designer Jens Jensen addressed the Springfield Civic Garden Club and updated the ladies on progress at the new Lincoln Memorial Garden. Farther north on Fifth Street, at the Orpheum, the Boys Town Road Show and A Cappella Choir performed live for several shows.

But on one rainy evening when Herbert Georg set up his tripod, time -- and several black sedans -- stopped for a quiet moment.

Cheryl Pence, who is filling in for "History Talk" columnist Bob Cavanagh in this edition, is the supervisor of special collections at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

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